Posted by: Joel P. | December 21, 2006

The Final Word

I wrote a long entry thanking anyone and everyone I could think of that was involved in my trip or this show. It was long, it was eloquent and it was a final entry to make me feel proud.

Then my computer crashed.

So I’ll make the thank-yous brief. They all fit into four groups: The Indians I met who were guides, hosts and friends to me; the University of Chicago Staff and Students I was with and who got me here; the people behind the scenes at NBC who first got me on this thing and then worked incredibly hard to make it great; and finally my fellow cast members for showing us their fantastic experiences all around the world.

Thank you.

As for me, well, my next step is on the way. I go back to Chicago and use what I learned. After that, I will travel around the world. Like I said, I’ve been saving up since I was a little kid. India was only the beginning for me.

I’m going to lay an open invitation for anyone who wants to join me to do so. I will be leaving after I graduate in the summer of 2008. I don’t know where or when. I don’t expect anyone to come with me all the way (and in fact I intend to do some of it solo) but if you’re reading this from France and want to see Germany, or you’re in South Africa and want to try to get to Madagascar, or maybe you’re near the Tierra del Fuego and want to catch a glimpse of Antarctica, come with me when I’m near you and see them.

All I know is that I will be seeing every continent on this planet in the space of a year. Anyone who can help me or who thinks I can help them should get in touch with me through this site or email me directly at This goes out especially to my fellow cast members of JYA 2006, Lauren, Jason, Erica, Matthias, Christopher, Natalie, Lisa, Stacey, Roger, I want to see some of what you guys did up close. Drop me a line.

The world is too big for you not to see it. If you still have to chance to study abroad, take it. If you do not, find out the best way for you to leave your home and return. Find somewhere you’d never thought you’d see in your whole life, and go see it. Money will not be an issue if you do your homework on the subject. Time and opportunity will.

I don’t feel like I’m a good enough writer to end this properly with my own words, so I will leave with a quote from one who I feel can:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

I thank you all, and wish you all good-bye, good luck, and real adventures.

Posted by: Joel P. | December 20, 2006

Notes and Corrections

Allright, here are some things I wanted on the record about my individual episodes:

Ep 2: “The Privacy of the Passengers”: The “shrine” shown as I’m talking about shrines… isn’t a shrine. It’s a statue of Shivaji, the local war hero. You can find his likeness all over Maharashtra.

Ep 4: “They Paint the Streets”:
-The food I was talking about is specifically the food we got at the hotel; People who come to India are a pretty self-selecting group. If they don’t like Indian food in general, they don’t come.

-As a rule, I asked for permission before turning the camera on people. Often people would ask me to film them and their friends and family when they saw I had a camera. That’s where the footage of people staring at me comes form.

-See the shirt I’m wearing during the camel ride? Okay, now watch “The Varkari Guru” again. Look familiar? That’s because these happened on the same night. The camel ride in this episode happened when I briefly stepped out of the drumming ceremony in the last episode to see what the parade noise outside was all about.

Ep 5: “Treehouse”: Notice something funny about the edges of the shots in the forest of Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary? It’s a plastic bag. It was raining for the first hour or so of our hike, so that was how I kept the camera safe and dry.

Ep 6: “What to Eat with Your Hands”:
-First of all, yes I am eating my gulab jamun with a spoon after saying they eat with their hands here. Not everything is eaten by hand, and often people will use utensils to be polite. Us westerners often did it just because eating rice and liquids and tearing bread with one hand is harder than it looks…

-Second, people asked how people ate liquids with their hands. Generally what they would do would be to take some sort of roti (bread) and use it to get the solid pieces out (meat, veggies, paneer, etc.) and then soak up what’s left with rice. Usually in a thali restaurant they will serve you roti first, then wait until you’re done with that to give you the rice for that reason.

Ep 7: “Big Cat”:

-Okay, I got up at 6 am to record this. I thought I could find privacy and quiet that way. You can see how well that worked out. Listen carefully, you can hear those car horns during the main body of the episode as well as the outtake bit, (thankfully the music covers them up some).

-It’s worth saying that graffiti of sacred images is not generally a big concern among Indians, but I did spot a lot of graffiti in roman script in other parts of the temple, probably from foreign tourists That’s why I was talking about putting the main images behind bars.

-Why did I go to the zoo? Well, I actually worked in the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle over the summer; I kinda wanted to compare notes. Interesting experience overall. The “Please Don’t Cross the Barricade, Survivors will be Prosecuted” sign is now my desktop photo on this computer.

Ep 8: “Namaste” (no accent on the e necessary, but it’s passable as it’s from a language that uses a different script).
-The temples date back to the 7th century CE, not BCE. That may be a one-letter difference, but it changes the date by about 1400 years. My mistake.

-The “Monkey Menace” sign was no joke; one of my friends got robbed by a monkey in Vijayanagara. Those guys will try to mug in packs given the chance. Do not show them food or anything flashy, they will try to take it.

-The Golgumbaz in Bijapur is not bigger than the Taj in Agra, it just has a bigger dome than the Taj does.

-Joel Shack was a shack that sold seafood and cocktails in Goa. I visited it and sought out the owner. Hilarity ensued.

That’s about all! Any questions, comments or further corrections should be emailed to me at

Posted by: Joel P. | December 13, 2006

New Guy, Old Home

Well, I’m back. I’m home. I’m sitting in my room writing on the same laptop on the same desk that published the very first entry of this blog, (with the same cat in my lap, for that matter).

It’s taken me a good three or four days to recover from the jet lag of jumping 13 ½ hours backwards. London cushioned me from the culture shock, though I’m still not quite ready to drive somewhere where the cars are on the right side of the road.

I’ve changed. That much is clear. I’m not entirely sure just how much I’ve changed, but living, studying, and traveling on the other side of the planet for a quarter did something to me.

Part of it is a little abstract. We’re used to defining a big part of who we are by our environment and how we interact with it. What our opinions are, what food we eat, where we go in our spare time, stuff like that. So if you’re suddenly plunked down in a completely different environment, where those opinions aren’t relevant, that food doesn’t exist, and those places aren’t accessible, who are you?

When I was a kid, I used to think the idea of people “finding out who they were” was laughable. You are you. You know who you are better than anyone possibly could. If you try to “find yourself”, all you’ll end up doing is chasing your own tail, right?

But when you take whoever you thought you were and put that person somewhere you’d never expect them to be, you’re in for a surprise. It’s half adventure-seeking, half science experiment. What would happen if, like me, you found yourself in a rural Indian hospital compound around 10pm, looking for a friend’s pregnant cousin so you could deliver a get well message, and the power suddenly dies? I know what I did, I learned more about me. What would you do?

Beyond that, once you’re back home in your old comfort zone, once the experience is a memory, a story you can tell at parties, post in a blog, or keep secret, do you look at yourself the same way as you used to? What if you had a couple hundred experiences like that? After you’ve passed a crowd of hungry Indian children who get into a fistfight over the sandwich and apple you’ve given them from your lunch, do you look at your leftovers the same way when you’re back home? Or are you now someone new?

The clichés are true. When you study abroad, you do get a broader perspective, your life does change. You won’t look at your home the same way again when you return to it. You will gain memories you will never forget. And when someone on the street asks you “how was it?”, you’ll never be able to give them an answer that captures the whole thing no matter how hard you try.

If that gets your attention, study abroad.

Posted by: Joel P. | December 8, 2006

In Heathrow

I’m standing at an internet kiosk in the biggest shopping mall I’ve ever seen: Heathrow International Airport, London, UK.

London has been something the like of which I’ve only seen in movies and advertisements for the last three months. Everything is clean, everything is orderly, everything works. When I got to the home of my hosts, the place dazed me. The last time I had visited a friends house was in Pune; they had insisted I sit in the only chair (a rickety lawn chair) while they sat on the bare floor as we watched a movie on a computer monitor. Here I was seated in a skylit room on a black leather couch being fed several types of real cheese, biscuits nuts, fruit and more. When they showed me the bedroom they were obviously concerned that it was too warm or cold. All I could think about was the fact that it was the first soft bed I’d felt in ages. As soon as I lay down in it I slept for more than 15 hours straight.

The next day, I hopped a double-decker bus to the West End. From then, I was taking in as much as I could get my hands on. The place is a completely different world from where I’ve been. I can drink water right out of the tap without getting sick. I can hand people things with my left hand without offending them. I don’t have to take my shoes off anywhere. And that’s not even touching on the physical differences, how everything looks, sounds, smells; the weather, the streets, buildings, monuments, cars, stores, sidewalks, everything!

I want to thank my hosts, Mike and Clare for being so welcoming, helpful, and generous in so many ways, doing everything from showing me the tricks of London transport to taking me out to some of the nicest meals I’ve had in weeks to providing me with anything and everything a visitor could want and more. It was a pleasure, please come to the US so the favor can be properly repaid!

But now I have to go. My flight boards in half an hour.

…I’m coming home.

Posted by: Joel P. | December 2, 2006

He left in the night…

The time is currently 5:00am. I’m in Bombay international airport with my luggage. My flight out isn’t until 9:10, so I can’t check my bags for another hour, security will probably be another hour after that.

I got some sleep on the way here; a bus picked me up from Pune a little before midnight, when and where I said goodbye to the friends who were still hanging around the hotel.

People keep asking me how I feel about this. Leaving. The truth is, right now, I don’t. I don’t have time. I need to finish this, that, and the other thing before I can really start analyzing myself. Once I get on the plane and it lifts off, maybe things will be different.

I tried five different times to update this blog with something like fifteen different things with no luck thanks to the internet connection available. First it was a piece about poverty, then about the riots that happened in a nearby suburb, then the strike that followed, then other things that have happened since. I have two albums of pics left from my archeology course to upload, plus a few I snapped a few hours ago to record my last night in Pune.

I’m going to spend a few days in London with friends of the family before I head home. I’m looking forward to that of course. I think if I concentrate on that, I can deal with how I feel about leaving India later.

Until then…

Posted by: Joel P. | November 29, 2006

Back in Town

I’m back! I’ve come a long way to get here and a ton has happened. I got as much of it as I could on tape, but of course all I can show that way is the small slice I can point a camera at. There’s plenty that I couldn’t record that deserves to be shared.

Example: Have you ever been blessed by an elephant? I have.

I was walking barefoot through the entrance to the Virupaksha temple in the ruined capital city of what used to be the Vijayanagara empire when I spotted something big and gray immediately to my right. It was a ceremonial elephant, paint on its head and garlands at its feet. Our professor told us that if we gave it money, it would bless us.

So I stepped up and the big guy stuck the end of a trunk my way. I dropped a five rupee coin in a nostril. The elephant caught it and whipped the trunk back to give the donation to the handler. It then lifted its trunk up and gently laid it on top of my head for a couple seconds before gently lifting it up again to receive the next offering.

I’d just been blessed by a giant pachyderm. Wow.

That’s a drop in the bucket. I’ve climbed hundreds of steps to see temples commemorating everything from two-foot cylindrical shivalingas to hundred-plus feet statues of the relatives of Jain saints. I’ve explored the tombs of Muslim sultans, scrambled across steep rocks to find artifacts from the stone age, swam in the Indian ocean, sung karaoke for the first time in my life in a Goan resort at the request of a group of Russian tourists, helped throw a birthday party in the windowless back room of a hotel bar with highly irregular electricity, only two working lights and at least one cockroach as long as my middle finger, chased mice around a train car, and a lot more besides.

I have lots of stories, lots of footage, and lots of pictures. I’ll be uploading as much as possible over the next few days but it’s gonna be tricky; the Internet connection where we’re staying is down so I’ve had to be… creative in my methods of posting. Don’t worry, if everything goes to plan I’ll have a new photo album up each day for the next few days.

More pressing though is that my time is almost up. As I’m writing this Wednesday is drawing to a close. I have Thursday, Friday, and Saturday left here in Pune. Midnight Saturday night/ Sunday morning I catch a shuttle to Mumbai and the International Airport where I’ll be flying home by way of a stop in London for a few days.

Three days remain.

I’m not going to kid myself into thinking you will be checking multiple times a day to read the hundreds of stories I could post to this thing over those three days, (many of which I already have written out). Besides, I’ve got a lot more I want to do with my last few moments in India than sit in front of my computer all day, (I’ll be doing plenty of that already as I have one last 10-20 page final paper due Saturday).

Expect more photos for sure. If I have time, I’ll toss in a blog post or two too. I’ll definitely have at least one more before I leave the country. Until then…

Posted by: Joel P. | November 11, 2006

Indian Sanitation.

If you are eating right now, do yourself a favor and finish before reading any further. This is not going to be pretty.

We get the newspaper (Indian Express or the Times of India) delivered to our room every morning at our hotel. Yesterday, a random quote on the second page made me do a quick double-take:

“’Earlier, we were prone to infection. My husband and son had frequent stomach complaints. After the awareness camps by people who helped us install these toilets, we realized it was all because we were defecating in the open. But all that’s over now.’, says —–.”

I searched for and found the beginning of the article. It was above the fold on the front page. Here’s the opening paragraph: “In Kakhorda at Tamluk in East Midnapore, life has changed for —– ——. Her six-year-old son has not had cholera even once in the last three years. Her husband too has kept in good health. No longer does she go to the woods every morning. The concrete toilet, the new addition to their thatched hut, has seen a blessing.” Later: “Gone are the days of open air defecation, embarrassing situations. West Bengal is one state where rural sanitation has taken tremendous strides.”

What struck me the most about this was that these people were not horror-story subjects, they were presented as ordinary, middle-class, suburban Indian citizens. It was no more remarkable than a middle-aged man in northern Illinois describing how he used to have a hard time getting out of the driveway in the winter before the county put more money into clearing snow from the roads.

I guess this shouldn’t be too surprising to me. Indian culture used to (and in some places still does) consider cow dung to be a purifying agent; comparatively speaking, it wasn’t all that long ago that it was used to clean people’s houses here. In many questions issues about sanitation seem simply to be a question of basic education. Not only that, but in the scheme of Indian sanitation issues, the availability and use of toilets is a drop in the bucket compared to say, the combination of the Mumbai open sewer system with the monsoon season. For the sake of readers such as yourself, I will refrain from going into any further detail.

In a country that seems to be concentrating on proliferating broadband Internet, fast cars, mobile phones, and advanced cardiac surgery, it’s strange to find such basic needs silently going unmet. You can’t have Internet without steady electricity. You can’t use fast cars before you make good roads to drive them on. You can’t spread mobile phones without a well-developed land-line phone system. And it seems a little strange to be concerned about advanced medicine without taking care of the most basic health needs first.

The good news behind this of course goes right back where I started: the newspaper article I found. It covers the achievements of sanitation efforts in West Bengal. The country is noticing. It knows there is a problem and it is working to solve it. According to UNICEF, the West Bengal state sanitation coverage has risen to 65%, (which may not sound great, but is a great deal higher than the nationwide average of 32%). Thanks to independent NGOs and charities, we can expect things to continue to change for the better.

…reading that quote while eating my breakfast still made for a strange way to start my morning though.

There is a near-universal complaint among non-Indians who have been to India: they always get sick. No matter who they are, how long they’re there, or what precautions they take, they always come down with something in the end. Even the ones who don’t admit to it at first. I asked one the trip leaders if she’d ever gotten sick here. Her answer was something like this:

“What? No, I’ve never gotten sick here. I hear people complain about it all the time but I’d never really had any problems myself… well except for some minor digestive problems… well, okay, there was the time I got dengue fever, but…” etc.

Still I was pretty proud of myself for going nearly seven weeks in India completely healthy.

Not everybody on the program has been as lucky as I have; there seem to be at least two people in our group that are sick at any given time. One of the last bus rides we took, I had to collect plastic bags for my friend sitting next to me, who had to stop the bus at least three times to vomit. Another one of my friends was told by a doctor several weeks ago that she would need to get her tonsils removed when she returned home. Every outing we go on as a group seems to leave at least one person behind, sick. Sometimes it’s from drinking the local water, sometimes its from food. Most of the time though, we have no idea what caused it.

So when I woke up with a sore throat Monday morning, I wasn’t a happy camper. That first day I figured I might be getting a cold. By Tuesday I was sure of it.

When yesterday rolled around with no other symptoms except a worsened sore throat, I started to wonder. Then this morning came. I woke up practically gargling phlegm and with a voice about an octave deeper than it had been eight hours previously, but no runny nose, no sneezing, and no nasal congestion.

So I when I came down to breakfast and found Mark and Jaime (the program’s director and assistant, respectively) and asked them between coughs what the deal was, they told me:

Air pollution.

While I do consider myself an environmentalist, I always thought the image of people having to go outside with gas masks to be a scarecrow tactic. The idea of it actually happening was laughable. But lately I’ve been seeing more and more people wearing veils and scarves over their nose and mouth, and I’m starting to find out why.

I had only noticed for the first time a few days ago the signs around the city with numbers representing the recent recorded level of air pollutants next to the standard “permissible levels”. I’d known about the fact that the auto-rickshaws that practically run the streets around here ran on diesel fuel, and having ridden around in them a lot it had occurred to me that I was often stopping at intersections in a wide open-air vehicle surrounded by other motor-vehicles whose exhaust were pumping out fumes at about my eye level.

It wasn’t until this week that it finally came to a head.

So while I guess I’m technically not “sick”, I’m not in great shape. We’re running low on water right now (we get shipments of bottled water from a neighborhood grocery store, but the most recent one was first delayed almost a week and then sent back when one of our teachers saw the shipment and decided he didn’t like the brand) but I’ve been trying to drink as much as possible while leaving enough for my roommate and whichever other five people happen to actually be sick. I’d like to think it helps. In the meantime, I’m just hoping for rain, and will be trying hard to stay out of the auto-rickshaws for a while.

Posted by: Joel P. | November 7, 2006

Too fast?

I move fast. I like moving fast. I can and will cram as much experience into 24 hours as I can; I like the fact that within the last few days I have seen centuries-old cave temples on the other side of the state, watched movies at the National Film Archive of India, cruised the biggest bazaar in Pune, taken cooking classes with a local yoga teacher, visited an ashram on the northern end of town, and half a dozen other things that I’ve gotten a chance to try on the spur of the moment.

I do all this and still end up thinking I need to get out more.

Already I have only one week left in town, and even though I knew that’s what the schedule was going to be it still feels like a surprise. It seems like I only just got back here a couple weeks ago, (…then again, I suppose that’s because I did only just get back here a couple weeks ago… hmm…. right). We’ve got lots more to do and lots more to see and we aren’t stopping any time soon.

This comes at a cost. I’m already going to be pretty busy with trips and program outings, not to mention tests, papers, and homework.

The thing is, I’ve met all these people along the way. But because of the break-neck pace we’ve been moving at, I’ve only been able to do that: meet them. We exchange names, email addresses, smiles and waves, then I never see them again because I’ve run off with the program to trek through ancient ruins or something. Yes, I love the ruins, but I wish I could stick around and actually spend some time with the friends I just might make here. So far, all I’ve got is a list of contact information for people who I want to see and don’t have time for.

Like I said, I don’t like missing opportunities.

I have absolutely no regrets about going on a quarter-long program. It fits perfectly into my life; while I’m having a great time here, I’m looking forward to going home in December. But I’m starting to realize that while moving fast fits me and lets gives me an incredible range of experiences, it does mean I’ll miss a thing or two along the way.

It feels very strange to relegate real people to the status of “things I missed along the way”.

Posted by: Joel P. | October 30, 2006


This is a special message for all those eligible to vote in the US. I just got back from the post office where I sent in my absentee ballot. If you’ve read either this or this, you might realize that here, this is no simple task. If I can navigate the bureaucracy of India to vote in this election, you have no excuse not to.

The day is November 7th. If you have not registered to vote, do so now. If you have registered, make sure you know exactly where your polling place is, and/or make sure that you receive (and send) an absentee ballot. It’s not just a choice, it’s your civic duty.


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